Saturday, January 20, 2018

The dubious reformation of our Henry

 BEYOND mystifying is Nigel Henry’s sudden acceleration from his “poll” position, to run down the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) while giving a much-needed lift to the controversial run-off proposal (ROFF, I prefer) of questionable virtue (Express, August 9). He has thus forfeited his perch, sadly, as a prom­ising neutral pundit.

He asserts it “is well established in theory and practice that the FPTP system entrenches a two-party system”. In support, he recalls 22 per cent of the electorate voted for the ONR (Orga­nisation for National Reconstruction) in 1981 and 23 per cent for the COP (Congress of the People) in 2007 when neither gained a seat, to which I will return below.

It might be assumed he would opt, then, for some form of proportional rep­resentation (PR), but he pleads for ROFF. “Rather than concentrating power in two parties,” he maintains, ROFF “gives significant third parties a chance to win”.

To illustrate, he takes the advice of Trinbagonians: who vex, go to France. Voters on its left, he discloses, go for any number of left-wing parties in the first round and, in the second, “for whichever of the left-wing parties received the most votes, providing a consolidated vote against the right-wing in the second round”. 

To anyone vaguely familiar with the complexities of the French political system with, interestingly, an executive president and, in the National Assem­bly, an executive prime minister, who may belong to different parties, Mr Henry’s analysis greatly oversimplifies its dynamics. It ignores features making ROFF’s impact on the electoral process for the assembly different from that for the presidency.

In the assembly elections, candidates obtaining 50 per cent of the votes cast on a turnout of 25 per cent are automatically elected as deputies. Inciden­tally, a substitute is enrolled for each deputy should one be needed, for instance, if the elected deputy becomes a minister or is otherwise indisposed.

Crucially, however, if no candidate is elected in the first round, those who obtained 12.5 per cent of the votes cast advance to the second. It is this hurdle which, once surmounted, gives significant third parties, as Mr Henry puts it, a chance to win.

None such exists for presidential elections, which also proceed to a second round if no candidate gets the required majority in the first. In that event, only the two highest vote-winners survive, with the result that a fairly stable two-party system has flourished, comprising, currently, the UPM on the right and the Socialist Party to its left.

This is precisely the outcome Mr Henry decries but attributes in Trinidad and Tobago to FPTP, relying on the elections of 1981 and 2007. But does this tell the full tale, taking the long view of our history? 

FPTP impacted on the nominated Legislative Council here in 1925 when seven members, all elected from an island-wide constituency, were first admitted as an underwhelming mino­rity. By 1955, they were in a majority and after the elections of 1961, only elected members were allowed.

Before 1956, there were parties for so and it was not until then, one worthy of the description emerged. None­theless, the proliferation of parties continued unabated, from which a coalition ascended to office in 1986.

Indeed, it is only since 1991 when another party, deserving of the title, became the opposition, and subsequently the Government, that two-party dominance seemed to take root here. It is perhaps noteworthy, though, coalition government, albeit lopsided, has returned, all under FPTP.

For the unconvinced, develop­ments in Britain under FPTP may be per­suasive. The Liberal Party dominated the system with the Tories, well into the 20th century. By 1945, it had been replaced by the Labour Party, which started as a committee in 1900. 

Following relegation, the Liberal Party, reincarnated as the Liberal-Democratic Party, has recovered to the extent that it forms part of Britain’s coalition gov­ernment today. So it seems the jury may still be out on the long-term effect of FPTP.

Now, I do not crave any accolade as an expert, emeritus or otherwise, and I am no fortune-teller. It may well be that the replacement of FPTP by PR will produce the more representative democracy that the fair-minded desire.

But taking off with ROFF, a political temptress who is all things to all men, in France as elsewhere, is looking for serious trouble. And as to the numbers game, just because billions of flies take a taste is no recommendation for their diet.